There's a nice little moment in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Buffy and her brainy sidekick, Willow, are wondering if Giles (the stuffy British librarian who also acts as Buffy's Watcher) had ever rebelled in high school. "Are you kidding?" a skeptical Buffy exclaims. "His diapers were tweed. He probably sat in math class thinking, 'You know, this could be mathier!'"
As it turns out, Giles was a bit of a hellraiser in his youth, which just goes to prove that it's never too late for someone to reform and stage an intellectual comeback -- even if you're a math-phobic English major turned science writer like me. Last night I was browsing the Website of The Teaching Company, which specializes in videotaping courses for the general public on everything from economics and history, to philosophy, literature and, yes, science and math. In a moment of temporary insanity, I ordered the DVD course on "Change and Motion: Calculus Made Clear," taught by Michael Starbird, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin. He swears I can grasp the two deep concepts underlying calculus without the usual technical jargon and rigmarole. Plus, the set was on sale at less than half the original price. Apparently there's not much demand for remedial calculus courses these days.
Okay, my motivation wasn't really an insane lapse of judgment on a par with falling victim to late-night infomercials ("Now how much would you pay?"). We all have gaps in our broad base of knowledge, and while I am far more scientifically literate than the average American, I am functionally innumerate when it comes to math. Sure, I can balance my checkbook and manage my personal finances, even figure out basic percentages, but -- at the risk of sounding like a physicist talking about algebra -- that's not "real" math, just basic arithmetic. According to the course description, calculus is "one of the greatest achievements of the human mind," and an integral part of our intellectual heritage, since it lies at the core of how we see economics, astronomy, population growth, engineering, even baseball.
So I admit it: I could be mathier. A lot mathier. What I know about calculus could fit on the head of a pin, because I skipped my senior year of high school and went straight to college, where I was enrolled in an honors program and therefore exempted from the usual general requirements. (In retrospect, I can't believe I was allowed to get away with this.) While this certainly meant I could focus almost exclusively on my fortes -- literature and writing/journalism -- it meant my mathematical skills atrophied at an alarming rate from then on.
I think scientists have a valid point when they bemoan the fact that it's okay in our culture to be ignorant of math, whereas it's not okay to be illiterate. It shouldn't be okay. We don't all need to be math whizzes, but we should have some understanding of where math (including calculus) fits into the intellectual framework-- context is everything, people! -- why it's important, what the basic underlying concepts are, and, if possible, be able to struggle through the odd simple equation in a pinch. Per Bertrand Russell: "Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty... such as only the greatest art can show." (In other words: Math is pretty!) People do understand this at some level: witness the enormous success of the TV series Numb3rs, which ought not to have survived past the pilot episode if people truly didn't care about math. Most of us just don't resonate well to how the subject is traditionally taught. Our brains don't work that way.
Over the course of many years as a science writer, I've focused mostly on concepts, hands-on experiments, and the like in much of my work -- and rightly so, since this is a tried and true approach to succeeding at broader communication of science. I'm a big fan of concept-based physics courses for non-majors -- probably because I don't have unrealistic expectations about what students can and cannot gain from them. But I must confess that on the rare occasions when I've bothered to put in the effort to understand a basic equation or two -- and they must be basic, given my functional innumeracy -- it has deepened my grasp of the essential concepts in ways I don't entirely understand, yet can't deny. It's like some final piece clicked into place that I never even knew was missing.
The first step is admitting you have a problem. But just owning up to one's ignorance doesn't solve the problem. At some point, one has to confront one's weaknesses head-on. So I ordered Starbird's DVD lecture series. And to hold myself accountable, I'm going public with my little endeavor, to ensure I work through all 24 30-minute lectures. My goal is to cover two lectures per week, although I do have to work for a living, so this might be overly optimistic. I'll report on my progress every Friday, so you can all laugh and mock accordingly -- or even offer your own thoughts on the week's lecture topics.
Compared to a 24-lecture DVD course, here's something much, much easier: Declan Butler and the editors at Nature magazine have issued a call to arms regarding the "Tripoli Six," five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian physician who have been sentenced to death in Libya for purportedly infecting patients in their clinic with AIDS. This kind of thing has apparently been going on for years, but has been largely ignored by the scientific community. Nature thinks this needs to change. I think they're probably right, and a vast majority of the science blogosphere agrees as well. For tips on what you can do, go here.
Jen-Luc Piquant and I are off to fire off some angry letters and emails to join in the fight for justice. And UPS just delivered the DVDs from The Teaching Company. It's gonna be a busy week....